24 January 2011

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

Deb Harkness writes the award-winning blog Good Wine Under $20, which I often recommend to people who are new to wine. Fear about price and quality is a big issue for a lot of newcomers, and she has reviewed a lot of bottles in that category. When she's not looking for wines that will leave you some change from a double sawbuck, she teaches European history and the history of science at USC. She recently decided to take a stab at fiction with A Discovery of Witches, combining witches, vampires, and history. The book draws from Harkness' professional experience: working in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and writing non-fiction books on the history of alchemy. Does it fit better on the horror or fantasy or mystery shelf? Hard to say when bookstores today have entire sections called Teen Paranormal Romance. (I'm not suggesting that this book fits that category, but genres have gotten weirdly specific.)

On that subject, here's my own background with this type of fiction: from the time I was six until about twenty-six, I was a heavy consumer of sci-fi and fantasy, with occasional forays into mystery or other genre fiction. Following that were years of mostly non-fiction, as I needed a break and no longer had the energy to follow so many different series. I can remember writing to a few authors way back when and receiving letters months later. Now, I got sent a copy of a book ahead of the release date for review, and was able to say on Facebook, "Hey Deb, I'm reading your book!" and she messaged me back about an hour later. It's an interesting time to be alive.

Disclosure: I was contacted by the publisher of the book, not by Harkness. I accepted the sample out of genuine curiosity, not as a favor. Even if I didn't have prior contact or familiarity, I would have been interested to read a work of fantasy historical fiction written by a wine writer.

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
$29, 592 pages
Published by Viking

The main characters are the witch/historian Diana Bishop and the scientist/vampire Matthew Clairmont. Speculative fiction demands the following two logical statements before you can proceed: "In this world, X, Y, and Z exist. The nature of X, Y, and Z might be different from or contradict prior encounters in other fiction." In this world, there are witches who can use magic and potions, immortal vampires, and enigmatic daemons. All three can, for the most part, blend in with human society, and they spend the vast majority of their time living normal lives and working normal jobs without bursting into flames or having green warty faces. There's not a massive alternate world like in the Harry Potter books (which I truly love) or the sweaty lust of Sookie Stackhouse and The Southern Vampire Mysteries. And we're spared the teen angst of Twilight. No, when our protagonists meet one of the first events is attending a yoga class together. Which makes sense, because sleeping in a coffin would be hell on your back and shoulders. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The mystery at the center of the book surrounds an old alchemical tome, and the work in question--Ashmole 782--is a real book that has been lost to history. There are loads of books that are only known through secondary or tertiary references. Sometimes they are mere historical curiosities, meant to fill in a piece of a very fragmented puzzle. Other times they are books of the Bible, which could have caused a very different course of Western history if included in the official canon. I think this is what really gripped me while I was reading, since I'm honestly not into the whole modern vampire thing. I don't have a Team Edward or Team Jacob t-shirt. But I love libraries, and it's evident from the writing that Harkness shares my passion for quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. I occasionally had to stop and run downstairs to pet my beloved atlases and 19th century first editions. With gloves on, of course.

I'm sure everyone is wondering: "Where does wine fit in?" I admit that I was getting a little antsy while reading it. Let's call the phenomenon Chekov's Corkscrew. The answer shows up about 150 pages in, and in a curious turn, the female protagonist (most of the book is written in her first-person view) knows little to nothing about wine. The deep knowledge and impressive collection is instead placed with the immortal vampire, with an advanced sense of smell and the patience to let some classic bottles wait for the proper occasion. I found it refreshing to have a vampire to relate to: the guy likes science and wine. If a vampire is just a dark and mysterious object of sex appeal for a swooning woman... I'm not knocking that, but it just doesn't do anything for me. Someday there's going to be a vampire character marketed towards guys that spends most of his free time restoring classic cars, recounting stories of classic European rally races, and loves driving (but not in convertibles). Who knows? Maybe this has already been co-opted in a different form like Count Rusty: Tales of a NASCAR Vampire.

My point with all this is that Harkness used her two lead characters to break away from many of the common clichés about witches and vampires, both when compared to other works but also within the world of the book. Diana Bishop would rather go rowing than attend a solstice ceremony. Matthew Clairmont avoids the temptations of power and hunger to focus on the scientific causes and effects of vampirism, as well as the future of his species. Despite the distinctions that are frequently brought up in the novel, such attitudes make the characters far more human, and thus more relatable to the reader.

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Harkness will be on a nationwide book tour in February. If she's coming to your town, drop by and show her some support.

Note: This book was received as a sample.


Do Bianchi said...

Benito, mazel tov on the anniversary and thanks for the shout out and kind words (I'm just catching up on my blog reading now and yours is always at the top of my Google reader).

I've always been a fan and am digging it as always...

congrats! hope to get to meet and taste with you soon!

Mark said...

Hey Benito,
Thanks for sharing. Great review. I look forward to checking it out in the near future. Congrats to Deb!

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks to Benito--and Mark--for the good wishes!